The Secret Sauce Behind Scholarship Selection (part 1 of 2)

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us for the first in a 2-part series about scholarship selection. Chaffee has worked for prestigious merit scholarship programs at Duke University, NC State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

Imagine you are a child playing with a blocks and cutouts set. You have stars, triangles, squares, circles, and rectangles. Each block is made of pure gold. You place all of them until you get to the last set. In your hand is a gold star, but the remaining cutout is a square. So the game is over – you just can’t fit a star into a square.

This scenario is a good way to think about your chances of winning a major full-ride scholarship to a college or university. Even if you are made of pure gold, among the best students out there, it doesn’t change your shape. It doesn’t change who you are fundamentally. What can change, however, are your expectations for financing college education.

In my experience as a scholarship director, there are three issues affecting your chances of receiving a major (and sometimes even minor) scholarship: Fit, Numbers, and Composition.

Fit

I’ll start with the concept of Fit. Many students think if they aren’t selected for a scholarship it’s because they weren’t good enough—that something is wrong with them, or something is wrong with the selection process. Both of those scenarios are rarely the case when we are talk about truly competitive students (the gold stars). Instead, it is usually about a lack of fit.

For example: the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship at Georgia Tech is the Stamps President’s Scholarship. Our program focuses on four pillars: scholarship, leadership, progress and service. Let’s say we see a student who is solid gold in all their pursuits, but they’ve spent only a little time in service. While the student’s overall quality is high, their fit for our program is not, as service is a fundamental trait we value. On the other hand, that same student might be an amazing leader with a very strong background in athletics. Another well-known, prestigious scholarship program at another school may focus on physical vigor among other qualities. So the same student who may not fit in our program very well may fit into another.  When quality is high and fit is high, the chances of receiving that scholarship increase. (For the record, we do have athletes in our program. Other scholarship programs that do not focus on service still have students with great records of helping others. These are just general examples being used to illustrate a point.)

Now, notice I used the word chances. It’s a chance because fit isn’t a check box—there’s more than one aspect of quality being sought in the same student, not just service, or just physical vigor. It’s more than a yes or no. Many different aspects of a student and their background are held up against the desired characteristics of any particular scholarship program. Students are complex and so are scholarship programs.

My Advice:  when it comes to fit, be sure to apply for scholarships that fit you and your accomplishments, rather than chasing awards a well-meaning parent, alum, or counselor told you would look good on your resume.

Numbers

What do I mean by numbers? On one level, it’s about the quantity of scholarships, and on another, it’s about statistics. We’ll start with quantity of scholarships. If a student is admitted at Tech in early action, that student is in the running for one of our 40 Stamps President’s Scholarships. That’s right –not 1,000, not 100. Only 40. The numbers are similar at many other schools with prestigious, merit-based, full ride scholarship programs-. At Tech, this translates to a less than 1% chance of receiving the scholarship because we admit only about 4,500 students in the early action round.

Why are the numbers so low? The reality is every full ride scholarship a university offers to undergraduates is usually thanks to generous private donors who wish to help fund the education and professional development of a single scholar. Many, if not most, scholars must be funded from the income generated by permanent endowments, especially at public universities. Multiply that by dozens of scholars per year, then by four years’ worth of scholar cohorts. You quickly get a very large amount of money each school must raise from private donors.

The bottom line? There are many more gold star students than there are funds for a prestigious full ride merit scholarships.

What about statistics? Some schools have SAT/ACT minimums or GPAs that must be met, while others do not (for the record, Tech does not have a minimum threshold for our program). Chances for scholarships can, and do, depend on which school and scholarship program you’re targeting. Sometimes scholarship programs make such eligibility factors public, but not always. Even if there are no minimums, the truth is that for students seeking academic scholarships, GPAs, course selection, and test scores still factor into the equation. And even if a program doesn’t have a minimum requirement for academic scholarships, your GPA, course selection, and test scores will still factor into the equation—how can they not? The good news is several scholarship programs use a holistic review just like many admissions offices. Regardless, unless a student with lower academic performance has incredible leadership or extracurricular activities, it is hard to ignore the intellectual superstars in favor of better-than-average students.

One other thought:  To be a valedictorian or in the top 5-10% at your high school is an incredible accomplishment. But when all the top students at high schools across the nation start competing for colleges, only a portion become the top 5-10% of all applicants. It’s mathematically impossible for all of them remain in the top 5-10% at the college level. Yet that is often the mentality of a valedictorian or salutatorian – being the big fish in a small pond in high school often ends with being among the average when it comes to selection for major scholarships. I can’t tell you how many parents have called me over the years to say “but my child was valedictorian, so that means a scholarship.” Sadly, the numbers don’t make that a possibility. Besides, valedictorian is only one measure of strength.

My advice: apply for scholarships and always hope for the best, but get comfortable with the idea that you will pay for college with student loans, work-study, and other sources, even if you are a solid gold performer. Most students going to college have to pay, and they do so knowing they’re investing in themselves and their future salary will pay off those loans. If you’re still concerned about cost, take a look at the schools ranked high for best value, as these are also excellent choices.

Next week we’ll talk about the final piece of the puzzle: composition.

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Two Sides of the Same Story

This Saturday we will release admission decisions. On Friday, we will gather our entire staff in a room we affectionately call the “collaboratory” or the “collaborodome”—a  big space including about 12 work stations, a few white boards, a flat screen, and more forms of chocolate than you find in most grocery stores.

First, we will walk through the number and percentage of students in each admission decision category, as well as their basic academic and geographic profile, the timeline for pushing the decision into our portal, and the email communications to follow. These are the numbers and the mechanics. But where we will spend most of our time is encouraging and preparing our staff for what’s to come.

Great work, tough decisions, many responsibilities.

We will thank staff for their great work to get us to this point. 18,000 applications reviewed (many having been read two or three times) in less than 12 weeks (that’s 18,000 essays and 18,000 short answer responses, people), not including review with faculty from all six colleges. By all counts it’s a huge challenge and a phenomenal accomplishment. In the midst of reviewing applications, we’ll acknowledge how our staff also spent time hosting families on a daily basis and traveled to high schools to talk to students and families about Tech specifically and the admission experience broadly. We will applaud the sacrifice of time away from family; the toughness to push through fatigue and illness; and the commitment they’ve demonstrated to get us here. Working in college admission is not an easy job—and we try to drive this point home. Sincere, authentic appreciation and respect. And chocolate for everyone!

Not everyone agrees.

Once we have laid all of the accolades on pretty darn thick, we will discuss how tough the decisions really are. There are many difficult choices in order to select the best match students from thousands of incredibly talented applicants. Even in our own committee discussions we have disagreements. So, especially for the staff members who have not been in our office for many years, we prepare them to hear from many students, friends, parents, counselors, principals, neighbors, loving aunts, alumni, and even seemingly unconnected observers who will not agree with our decisions. If, conservatively, you assume every applicant has four people “in their corner,” you’re talking nearly 100,000 people this Saturday who are impacted by these decisions. Expect to receive emails and calls questioning and commenting on almost every element of our process. “Didn’t you see how high her test scores are?” “You clearly have no idea how hard our high school is.” “I thought you had a holistic review. There is nothing else he could have done outside the classroom.” And within minutes you will receive contradictory accusations. “I know you only took her because she’s a legacy.” Followed by “Apparently, you could care less we are a third-generation Tech family.” “And why didn’t you fold the laundry?” (Wait…. That was a text from my wife.) Bottom line: there will be a lot of people poking holes, second guessing, and generally frustrated about things not going the way they think they should have gone.

Miles to go before we sleep.

In many ways putting these decisions on the proverbial streets is only the beginning of our work. As soon as we admit students, the hard work of convincing them to come begins. Known as “yield season” in our world, it’s a time filled with calling campaigns, open house programs, and even more travel. Not to mention another 18,000 regular decision applications to review by early March. Tight timeframes… lots of work to be done. Keep the coffee pot full, re-stock the Emergen-C, and keep your head up. We got this.

A Commonality

As I was making my notes on what to say to staff on Friday, I could not help but notice that as an applicant, all of these things can be said for you too. Most of you will receive some combination of admission decisions from different schools this year. When they roll in, regardless of the outcome (admitted, deferred, denied, waitlisted) keep these three things in mind:

Great work, tough decisions, many responsibilities.

You have juggled a lot to get here: classwork, practice, job, family. It has taken sacrifice, commitment, desire, and a willingness to trade some comfort and ease for a more difficult path. If you are admitted, great. Kudos. Well done. You took the classes, made the grades, put in the work and deserve to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your efforts get rewarded. Keep your celebration classy, my friends. Act like you’ve been there before. If you are not admitted, nothing has changed. An admission decision does not invalidate the character you’ve displayed or knowledge you’ve gained. Hey. Hey! Do you hear me? Sincere, authentic appreciation and respect. Some other school is going to send you chocolate soon (metaphorically speaking, of course) and it will taste doubly sweet when they do. Trust me.

Not everyone agrees.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but you may actually have to be the adult in this situation, even in your disappointment. I’ve seen many grown people absolutely lose their minds over admissions decisions: rants, cursing, threats, accusations, pulled donations, thrown objects, broken friendships. I’ve NEVER seen this kind of behavior from a student (well, maybe a few curses, but basically warranted). You may get in somewhere only to have a friend’s parent assert it is “just because ___________.” Just because of… gender, major, your parents’ jobs, one of your feet is slightly longer than the other, or you’re left-handed. You may not get in and have your own parent cite one or all of these same reasons. Bottom line: there will be a lot of poking holes, second guessing, and general frustration around things not going the way others think they should have gone, and when it does, remember most of it stems from a place of love. It may not feel like it at the time, but love is the root of the behavior. Two pieces of advice: 1 – read the poem “if” by Rudyard Kipling soon. 2 – Hug them. If you keep your composure, maintain your confidence, focus on the big picture, and express love in the moment, there’s nothing you can’t handle (actually a rough paraphrase of “if”).

Miles to go before we sleep.

I understand how in January it feels like getting in is what it’s all about. But the truth is some of the toughest work is still ahead of you. The likelihood is you’re going to get in several places. You still need to compare those options, visit campus, receive and evaluate financial aid packages. Oh—and not to mention next week’s Calculus exam and the paper you still need to write.

Miles to go, my friends. But that’s the adventure, isn’t it? Enjoy every step!

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Don’t Cheat Yourself

Happy New Year! I hope you had a great break and are ready for school to kick back off. Okay, well, one out of two ain’t bad.

Today’s Disclaimers:

  • Today’s post is for high school seniors.
  • If you are not a senior, you are still welcome to read it.
  • This post acknowledges the presence of both drugs and alcohol in the world.
  • An acknowledgement, unlike a Grammy speech or a film credit listing “Grip #2,” is not an endorsement.
  • Eight years ago none of these notes would have been necessary.

Let’s Get Started

Two mornings a week I go to an interval fitness class at 5:30 a.m.  It’s not easy. You gotta really push, commit, and keep working. And that’s just the getting-up-and-driving-there part. Oh, and the workout is tough too. What I love about it (after my eyes are fully open and I remember how to breathe again) is the accountability. I like being around others who work hard and expect me to do the same. The 5:30 a.m. crew is tight. Let’s be honest, anyone working out at that time of day is a little off their rocker—and we celebrate this in one another.

I also like being coached. David, the owner and trainer, is a rock. With both a competitive sports and military background, he does not mess around. Sometimes I go to the class to hear one of his quips or signature phrases. One of my favorites typically comes about halfway through a round when he sees people struggling. He’ll yell “Don’t cheat yourself,” and we are supposed to respond, “Treat yourself!”  Sounds cheesy but if you knew him, you either A: wouldn’t think so, or B: wouldn’t say anything. Don’t let the glasses, big smile, and four kids fool you—he’s a bad man. Apparently, our early morning class does not muster as much gusto as the classes later in the day when we reply. While I attribute this to time of day, David does not cut us any slack. “I said, ‘Don’t cheat yourself!’” “Treat yourself!” we yell in unison.

So seniors, since I don’t expect you to show up at the 5:30 a.m. class (although if you do, tell him I sent you because I think I get a $50 discount) here are a couple of classic David lines to help you make the most of your final semester.

Don’t quit on you!

I love this one because it’s so convicting. When you’re on your fourth circuit and have the choice of weights, it’s pretty tempting to go lighter. When you’re given a range of 20-25 crunches and you’re exhausted, 20 sounds pretty darn good. But you got up for a reason, right?!

Academically, this spring, you could likely let up a little bit and still pull off decent grades. Unless you suddenly drop the weights on your foot, colleges are not going to bat an eye when they receive your final transcripts in June. So this is not a threat—it’s an encouragement. If you are reading this, you care. If you are reading this, you’ve likely already been admitted to at least one college (and I’d not doubt you have scholarship offers as well). As you start your final semester, I challenge you to keep working.  Don’t stop strengthening and stretching your muscles. As a senior in the spring, it’s not about getting in anymore, even if you are still waiting on some decisions to come out. Forget us. You owe it to yourself, your teachers, and your classmates to complete your set. This is about finishing strong and being as prepared as possible when you head off to college this summer or fall. And trust me, people are watching. Classmates, siblings, kids two classes below you who idolize you. Don’t quit on you… or them!

“Own Your Workout!”

 This phrase is actually a sign on the wall at the gym. Own.YOUR.Workout! Sure, David’s going to challenge you. Sure, there is the accountability of the rest of the class. But ultimately, it’s all on you. When you work out or study or practice anything, it’s not only about today, but what it sets you up for in the future– positive or negative.

Socially, this spring, have fun. Senior spring should be filled with lots of great moments and “lasts.” Last games and seasons, theatrical productions, musical performances, trips, prom, spring break, graduation. All good stuff. Enjoy your time with friends, classmates, teammates, co-workers. Don’t wish it away or try to rush through it. Be present, be involved, and also be smart. Again, this is not a threat. I’m not telling you to not drink at prom because it will result in you being suspended. I’m not telling you not to spray paint the school or put a goat on the roof because you might get expelled.  I’m not telling you not to get high at the beach this spring break because you could get arrested. And I’m not telling you don’t put lewd or bigoted pictures or content online because your admission offers could be revoked. I am telling you this because I’ve seen all these things happen within the last three years. I am telling you this because I won’t be there, your parents won’t be there, your coaches and teachers won’t be there. When you walk into any of those situations, it’s your choice, your decision, your reputation, your future. We can’t pick up the weight or put in the work, and we won’t finish the drill for you.

Ultimately, all we can do is stand at a distance and lovingly implore you not to quit on you, and to own your workout!

I said, “Treat Yourself!”

(Yes, yes. I can hear you. Well done.)

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Admissions Festivus

I recently had the opportunity to co-write this article with my friend and colleague, Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling at The Derryfield School, an independent day school in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Here are the first few paragraphs to give you a sense of the premise:

College counselors who work in secondary schools, and college admission officers who represent universities, are by and large affable people. We are in this field not because we revel in being “gatekeepers,” but because we love students and deeply value education and the opportunities it brings. Conversations at professional conferences are typically wide-ranging, entertaining and passionate; from football to politics; from travels to cooking; from The Simpsons to Stranger Things.

However, there are times when we disagree or simply dislike the way the other operates. And since our nation has too many poor public examples of finding understanding and middle-ground, we owe it to our students to model honesty and open communication. Unfortunately, as in all industries, there are some deeply entrenched patterns and phrases that can be divisive. Perhaps the biggest culprit in our profession is the notion that we are working on opposing “sides of the desk.” “Sides” fortifies our two roles and connotes division and intractable positions. The mere suggestion of a “desk” is also problematic in its formality- an austere, unbridgeable chasm.

So, in the spirit of the Holiday Season and the New Year, we’ve decided not only to resolve to stay open but also to turn a phrase and sit “side by side.” And what better way to do that then to borrow from a deeply loved tradition: Festivus. If you’re not familiar with this Seinfeld-created holiday, it’s essentially an airing of grievances.

Read the full article to see our gripes and rebuttals to each other’s objections…

 

What’s Your Bus?

This week we welcome Communications Officer (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

Last month a piece of Atlanta history came crashing down. In case you missed it, the city imploded the Georgia Dome. As with most demos, news crews from all over the city were there to cover the action. After all, who doesn’t love to see a good building implosion? But The Weather Channel’s coverage easily won the internet that morning.

I’ll be honest—when this video came out, I couldn’t get enough of it. I laughed until I cried… over and over. Never in a million years could you have timed this better– a MARTA bus rolls in and completely blocks the biggest moment of the day (which only lasted around 30 seconds at most). The frustration, disappointment, and angst in the videographer’s voice is priceless!

In full disclosure, much of my fascination with this video has to do with my background in local TV news. Before I started in education, I worked as a television news producer. My experience gives me a little bit of insight into what likely happened behind the scenes that day:

1 – The videographer scouted out the ideal spot to capture the action weeks ahead of time.

2 –  He arrived at said location in the early, early morning hours on a very cold day, probably around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., testing his equipment and making sure he had a clear connection back to the news station.

3 – Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, a whole host of staffers—including producers, reporters, and anchors—were all waiting for this video and had created their newscast around it. (Note: the bus part was not part of the plan or script).

What should have been an easy live shot turned into a completely botched effort, and the outcome wasn’t anywhere close to what they expected. And as for the videographer, I’m sure in that moment, he’s thinking, “You have to be joking? This bus literally ruined everything. Why me?!”

MARTA Buses and Admission Decisions

Last week a host of EA/ED colleges and universities across the nation released their admission decisions. While I don’t know all of the details on percentages, it’s likely that many of you got more bad (or uncertain) news than good. A lot more of you received a decision beginning with the letter D (defer or deny) rather than A (admitted).  You could say you had a MARTA experience, as the bus came rolling into your frame at a crucial moment, completely blocking what you’ve worked so hard to attain.

It’s easy to feel defeated—and that is totally understandable. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like being put off for another few months, or flat out rejected.

So how can you handle it when a bus rolls into your live shot? Take a couple of lessons from the MARTA bus incident:

Trust. There’s two ways to look at the bus: you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and throw in the towel. Or, you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and… wait. The bus in front of you will eventually move, and you’ll be left with a completely new perspective. Once the bus moves, you’ll have some great choices—so get ready.

Reassess. While you can’t go back in time and change your application, you can look back over the process and see if there’s anything you can do differently going forward. If you were deferred, is there a piece of information you can add into your deferred applicant form? Will their admission office accept an updated transcript with fall grades? If you have other open applications at other schools, have you ensured you’re working towards your deadlines and getting what they need to make a decision? If you were denied, do you have applications in at other schools that fit what you’re looking for in a college? There are still schools whose applications haven’t closed yet—get those apps in!

Accept. Sounds a little harsh on the outset, but bear with me. You’re probably asking yourself “what does she know? She doesn’t know how it feels to get shot down by your dream school.” But actually, I do. When I was a senior one of the Southern Ivy’s was at THE top of my list. I was smitten with this school in every way coming and going. I applied ED and was deferred to Regular Decision. Then, a few months later, I was denied. I remember getting the letter (ahem, because back in those days you actually had to wait on the mail to arrive to get a decision—so think about how much anxiety that created!), and sitting down with my parents and crying for three solid hours. So yes, I actually do know how you feel, and I remember how disappointed, sad, and betrayed I felt. I allowed myself time to mourn what I wasn’t going to experience, and the end of a dream. A couple of weeks later I chose to attend another school and never looked back. I’m sure the videographer allowed himself a pity party as well. But then, he picked up his equipment, jumped in the truck and headed to the next shoot. One step at a time, my friends.

Turning Abject Failure into a Big Win

Here’s the key: at the end of the day, what felt like abject failure to the guy behind the camera actually turned into a huge win for him, and The Weather Channel. The station posted the video on YouTube and as of today it has more than 1.2 million views. No way would it have gotten so much mileage if everything had gone right that morning. The video trended on social media all day. National news outlets picked it up, and before long spoofs were made of the incident (my personal favorite was this one created by Sports Illustrated).

I’m not telling you to broadcast your defer or deny all over social media (in fact—please don’t). What I am telling you is what looks like, feels like, and is one of the hardest moments of your life to this point will eventually turn into something good. You will find a college to call home… you will find a school that wants you on their campus… and when you ultimately get there in the fall, the sting of this decision will fade away as you make new friends, pursue new dreams, and make new memories.

Hang in there… easy to say, hard to do, but please try. The holidays are here, and you have a couple of weeks to rest, recover, and breathe. Be with family and friends, do something fun, read a good book, and invest in your well-being. You’ve got one more semester to tackle before your life changes… clear your head, and get ready! Great things are ahead!

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